Lubna Azabal in a scene from IncendiesPremiered at the Venice Film Festival; winner of The City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival; and Canada’s official entry for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Picture category. Incendies is racking up quite the resume and becoming the nation’s must-see movie of the year. Upon viewing, it becomes obvious Denis Villeneuve’s latest picture is worthy of all these accolades and more.

After their mother Nawal’s (Lubna Azabal) death, twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) embark on a journey to the Middle East in search of their tangled roots and to fulfill their mother’s last wishes. In the process, a disturbing light is shone on their mother’s past, culminating in a shocking revelation. The film is adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s acclaimed play.

The captivating story is this picture’s driving force and raison d’être. It is one part mystery and one part expository. The investigation by Nawal’s children as they dig further into her past and discover a woman they did not know existed is fascinating. Their encounters with people that knew her often only raise more questions or confusion. Meanwhile, the audience is bearing witness to the past Nawal escaped as flashbacks are interwoven through each step of her children’s search. Her life in the Middle East was tumultuous and marked by death and sacrifice. However, she survived everything until she was confronted by the unspeakable.

This mixed approach to revealing Nawal’s life is perfect and excellently executed. It manages to slowly build a relationship between Nawal and the viewer, paralleling the one Jeanne and Simon are developing with this unfamiliar side of their mother. While the violence Nawal encounters early in the film is effecting, it is only once we know her that our reactions become more empathetic.

The soundtrack is incredibly poignant. The opening scene of young boys having their heads shaved and entering the life of a child soldier is played out to Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army.” From there, the later Radiohead selections and the instrumental pieces rise up from the background at integral moments, contributing to the scene’s atmosphere. Thom Yorke’s wailing voice conveys just the right tone of mourning and desolation.

Désormeaux-Poulin and Gaudette portray very different characters that are often in opposition to each other, but overcome their differences when their need for each other outweighs their dislike for each other’s choices. Désormeaux-Poulin has a much larger role, as she begins the inquest on her own, travelling great lengths to find the truth. She is incredibly convincing in the many situations we view her in: a teacher’s assistant in Montreal; a stranger seeking help; an outsider being banished; a daughter feeling the pain of her mother. Gaudette is relatively standoffish and reluctant to participate most of the time; though his bout of overwhelming emotion is quite heartbreaking. Azabal is the film’s heart. The most stirring scenes belong to her and her performance through each is mesmerizing. The role could not have been casted better, nor her performance improved – she is flawless.

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